Time and Temporality in 17th-Century Dutch Genre Painting
Over the course of the 17th century, Dutch artists produced images that reflected a growing consciousness of time.
Ann Jensen Adams has written thoughtfully on this phenomenon in relation to 17th-century Dutch portraiture. In particular, see “Temporality and the Seventeenth-Century Dutch Portrait,” Journal of Historians of Netherlandish Art 5, no. 2 (Summer 2013): DOI:10.5092/jhna.2013.5.2.15.
Among the first genre painters to demonstrate this interest in time and temporality—the state of existing within or having some relationship to time—was
Ter Borch was extremely fond of Gesina, who was an artist in her own right. An avid copyist and illustrator, as well as poet, composer, and author of emblematic literature, she was particularly interested in Petrarchan concepts of love, especially love’s trials and tribulations.
On Gesina’s work, see Alison M. Kettering, Drawings from the Ter Borch Studio Estate in the Rijksmuseum, 2 vols. (The Hague, 1988), 2:435–436.
Ter Borch’s decision to portray Gesina in such a transient moment has made Woman Writing a Letter one of the most memorable and enduring images of the Dutch Golden Age. It also dovetails with several cultural events and phenomena that had an impact on the rhythm and regularity of daily life as well as on reflections on time and transience. Beginning in the 17th century, for example, there emerged an interest in the composition of diaries and autobiographies.
For a summary of Dutch ego-document research, see Mieke B. Smits-Velde, “Images of Private Life in Some Early Seventeenth-Century Dutch Ego-Documents,” in The Public and Private in Dutch Culture of the Golden Age, ed. Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. and Adele Seeff (Newark, 2000), 174–175n3.
Constantijn Huygens, Mijn jeugd, trans. and ed. C. L. Heesakkers (Amsterdam, 1987).
Mieke B. Smits-Velde discusses the ego-documents of David Beck, a schoolmaster from The Hague (1624); Jan Sijwertsz Kolm, an Amsterdam painter and rhetorician (1628); and Constantijn Huygens, secretary of the stadholder Frederik Hendrik (1631) in Mieke B. Smits-Velde, “Images of Private Life in Some Early Seventeenth-Century Dutch Ego-Documents,” in The Public and Private in Dutch Culture of the Golden Age, ed. Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. and Adele Seeff (Newark, 2000), 164–177. See also Rudolf Dekker, Family, Culture and Society in the Diary of Constantijn Huygens Jr, Secretary to Stadholder-King William of Orange (Leiden, 2013).
A new awareness of time is also found in scientific circles, most famously that of Christiaan Huygens, Constantijn’s son, whose interest in fixing and measuring time led him to develop the first pendulum clock in 1656.
On Huygens’s developments in timekeeping, see Clare Vincent, “European Clocks in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries,” in Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/clck/hd_clck.htm (accessed July 13, 2017).
Jan de Vries, Barges and Capitalism: Passenger Transportation in the Dutch Economy, 1632–1839 (Utrecht, 1981), 24; Leiden Municipal Archive, “Trekvaarten en jaagpaden,” no. 1, Leiden-Delft/The Hague register, September 3, 1666; Rotterdam Municipal Archive, “Bescheiden betreffende de scheepvaart,” no. 32, April 22, 1673.
Clare Vincent and J. H. Leopold, “Seventeenth-Century European Watches,” in Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/watc/hd_watc.htm (accessed July 13, 2017).
The personal experience of time was, thus, undergoing a dramatic change in the 17th century. For Ter Borch and his contemporaries, this shift may have been even more pronounced as histories, treatises, and encomia praising the timelessness of art and artists appeared in publication. Beginning with Karel van Mander, whose 1604 Het Schilder-boek (The painting book) included biographies of Dutch and Flemish artists, theorists and critics published texts eulogizing artists dead and living, perhaps emboldening the latter to consider their own places in history. Philips Angel’s address to the Leiden Painter’s Guild, Lof der Schilder-konst (Praise of the art of painting), given in 1641 and swiftly published in 1642, for example, repeatedly referenced the brilliance of
Quoted in Eric Jan Sluijter, Seductress of Sight (Zwolle, 2000), 220.
In many ways, Ter Borch’s Woman Writing a Letter embodies the changing relationship with time in the 17th century. As both an image of the momentary and an object that has survived far longer than its maker, it reflects the transient and the timeless. The degree to which scientific inventions, critical publications, ego-documents, and broader cultural phenomena influenced Ter Borch and his contemporaries is difficult to determine with any certainty. Nevertheless, the relationship between their paintings’ subjects and the growing interest in time and temporality highlights some connection. And, as Angel anticipated in his address, through their art, Dutch genre painters have indeed wrested themselves from mortality since “paintings can last for hundreds of years, and that is enough.”
Philips Angel, “Praise of Painting,” trans. Michael Hoyle, Simiolus 24, no. 2/3 (1996): 239.
Oct 19, 2017